Have we gone too far in translating ideas from aviation to patient

Have we
gone too far
in translating
ideas from
aviation to
James Rogers thinks that
attempts to learn from aviation
are ignoring fundamental
factors in healthcare, but
David Gaba argues that much
more could be done
All references are in the version on bmj.com
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James Rogers, consultant anaesthetist and flying instructor,
Department of Anaesthesia, Frenchay Hospital, Bristol
BS16 1LE, UK, [email protected]
Why are doctors constantly
told to adopt aviation safety
practices? My own specialty of
anaesthesia is particularly vulnerable, based on
the dubious analogy that giving an anaesthetic
is similar to flying an aircraft. Although initiatives
such as the World Health Organization’s surgical
safety checklist are generally welcome, the aviation
model has only a limited place in medicine because
there are fundamental differences between the
ways in which doctors and pilots work.
Using a checklist should never detract from the
priorities of flying an aircraft or looking after a
patient safely. Immediate actions should be com‑
mitted to memory, followed by reference to a con‑
cise aide memoire. Crucially, a checklist is distinct
from a briefing, which is normally given at two
specific times during a flight—before departure
and before descent. A briefing deals with all the
“what ifs?”(where to divert to in bad weather, what
to do if an engine fails on take-off) and deliberately
takes place at a time in flight when workload is
relatively low. In the operating theatre the check‑
list and briefing have merged untidily— team intro‑
ductions, discussions, and concerns are integral
to a briefing but shouldn’t feature on a checklist.
A proper checklist prompts a “challengeresponse” dialogue that is conducted in a rapid,
efficient way. This works well on the flight deck
with only two people involved, both of whom are
suitably qualified and alternating between fly‑
ing and non-flying pilot roles. Standard operat‑
ing procedures have defined these roles clearly,
allowing a captain and first officer who have not
previously met to fly a route, both confident of
each other’s actions and responsibilities. Such
standardisation is an unrealistic aspiration in the
operating theatre, where there are more people, a
varied skill mix, and a constant to-ing and fro-ing.
The person reading the checklist often responds
to his or her own challenge, thus losing the ele‑
ment of cross checking of items with another team
member and negating the value, and there are
more likely to be “authority gradients,” discourag‑
ing junior team members from questioning their
seniors. Crew resource management programmes
have enabled airlines to reduce such behaviour on
the flight deck, but overbearing personalities are
still widespread in medicine.
Value of experience
Emergency drills and checklists don’t take expe‑
rience into account. Pilots train for events they
may never encounter, but doctors deal with emer‑
gencies frequently and develop judgment. For
David M Gaba, associate dean for immersive and simulation
based learning and private pilot, Stanford University School of
Medicine, Simulation & Ed Tech, 291 Campus Drive, LK300,
Stanford, CA 94305-5217, USA, [email protected]
reviewed journals on these topics, and typically
the analogous practices in aviation long pre-date
their incorporation into healthcare.
Analogies between medicine and
aviation have been made on two lev‑
els: human factors and industry or
institutional. Neither has gone too far. The human
factors addressed include dynamic decision
making in critical situations, team manage‑
ment and teamwork in acute care teams, man‑
agement of fatigue, use of cognitive aids (such
as presurgical checklists, equipment checkouts,
and emergency procedures), optimising the
physical and electronic work environment (data
displays, user interfaces, alarms, etc), and safety
The analogies have worked particularly well
for aspects of healthcare that mirror the cognitive
profile of aviation pilots and controllers—those
involving sick patients with rapid clinical change,
interleaving of diagnosis and treatment, invasive
procedures, and heavy use of technology. Thus in
specialties such as anaesthesia, intensive care,
emergency medicine, surgery, endovascular
interventions, and neonatology the translation of
ideas from aviation has been successful because it
relates to fundamental human challenges of work
that is cognitively similar between domains.1‑4
There is extensive literature in healthcare peer
Further potential
It is true that concepts and practices from one
domain cannot be transferred directly to another;
translation or adaptation is needed to ensure that
the fundamental characteristics of healthcare are
considered properly. Such translation has been
successful for many concepts in many domains
of healthcare, but not all attempts will work; nor
will they work for every healthcare setting or
every problem of patient safety.
Nonetheless, if we accept that some concepts
have been reasonably translated from aviation
to healthcare, how far have we gone in actually
implementing those practices? We haven’t gone
very far, surely not far enough, and by no means
have we gone too far. Examples are legion. Check‑
lists are widespread and mandatory in aviation;
the notion of a simple checklist before surgery is
beginning to be implemented but adoption is still
extremely variable. Pilots are under strict limits for
work hours. In the United States, we impose limits
on work hours for medical trainees (mild limits
by European standards), but we have no limits for
experienced staff. Simulation is a regular part of
training and assessment for airline pilots. While it
is beginning to become commonplace for me­dical
BMJ | 22 JANUARY 2011 | VOLUME 342
e­xam­ple, only a few patients with postoperative
airway obstruction require re-intubation, but you
need to have seen a fair number to decide which
they are. In addition, pilots aren’t often faced
with having to diagnose—the computerised mon‑
itoring systems will display not only exactly what
is wrong but also the relevant actions to take.
Even with this degree of automation, human
confirmation of a problem at the initial stage is
useful—as long as it’s correct. In the Kegworth
disaster, the crew declared an engine failure on
the right rather than the left and went on to mis‑
takenly shut down the good engine.
Are checklists and emergency drills infallible
in aviation? Not necessarily—but that’s usually
apparent only with the wisdom of hindsight.
For example, in the Concorde disaster in Paris,
should the pilot have made a snap decision to
abort the take-off even after having passed “V1,”
the “must go” airspeed, contrary to established
procedures? Would the outcome have been better
if his burning aircraft had overshot the runway
but come to a halt, rather than t­aking to the air?
Risk management
The expectation in aviation is that everything
should go smoothly; equipment is standardised
and pilots fly only aircraft on which they have
been trained. Even variables such as weather are
trainees, the number of practising doctors—let
alone teams of doctors and nurses—who have
participated in an intensive simulation remains
tiny. In aviation, best practices determined by reg‑
ulators and individual companies are uniformly
adopted by pilots and controllers. In healthcare
even widely accepted evidence based best prac‑
tices are often not adopted uniformly.
Moreover, I would argue that we have been
too superficial in our approaches. Take fatigue.
No one seriously believes that it is wise for clini‑
cians to be dead tired when they perform poten‑
tially dangerous work on patients. Healthcare
has superficially grafted fixes to the problem of
sleepy clinicians without seriously redesigning
clinical work processes or the structure of the
clinical workforce. Is it any surprise that putting
a sticking plaster on a large wound doesn’t work
very well? What is really needed for this, and
many other problems, is fundamental recon‑
sideration of how clinical work is organised
rather than arguing about the source of ideas for
Wider comparisons
The second level of analogy concerns larger
issues of aviation versus healthcare as indus‑
tries.5‑7 Both aviation and many parts of health‑
care are of high intrinsic hazard. Evolution
certainly didn’t intend for human beings to be
dealt with—there are strict minimum conditions
that must be met before starting an approach to
land. In contrast, ill patients come in all shapes
and sizes, and diseases follow different courses,
even before allowing for the fickleness of human
behaviour. Unsurprisingly, the mindset of pilots
and doctors is different—in medicine not only do
we tackle situations that are inherently danger‑
ous, such as operating on the moribund patient,
but we are also obliged to outline the risk and
obtain consent to proceed. This doesn’t happen
in commercial aviation; if something—equip‑
ment, weather, runway condition—doesn’t
meet standards, you simply don’t fly (and you
don’t consult the passengers in reaching that
The evolution of simulators in aviation has
been financially driven. Yes, it helps that emer‑
gency situations can be reproduced and drills
practised, but using a simulator instead of an
empty aircraft for conversion training repre‑
sents a massive saving. Pilots are able to fly a
new aircraft type for the first time on a routine
passenger flight (albeit alongside an experi‑
enced training captain and extra pilot), such is
the quality of their preceding simulator expe‑
rience. Simulators in medicine don’t offer the
same degree of realism, or such obvious value
for money.
up in the air. Many endeavours in healthcare—
anaesthesia being one obvious example—are
equally unnatural and likely to cause harm if
not controlled carefully. The unmatched safety
of commercial aviation (for US airlines sched‑
uled service 2000-9: 0-1 fatal accidents a year or
0-0.017 per 100 000 departures a year) is testa‑
ment to the effort that has gone into making what
is fundamentally dangerous into something that
is incredibly safe. Healthcare is nowhere near to
achieving such results, even for elective care.
Clearly though, there are limits to the com‑
parison of aviation and patient safety. It is
important to distinguish the intrinsic differences
between these arenas from the differences that
are due only to traditional structures and prac‑
tices. One fundamental difference is that unlike
aeroplanes, we don’t design and build human
beings; we don’t even receive the instruction
manual. Another fundamental difference is that
for commercial aviation many lives are at risk
in each flight, whereas in medicine we typically
have only one. Thus, airline accidents are highly
public whereas most iatrogenic adverse events
remain private. Conversely, many differences
are not fundamental but are contingent solely
on historical factors of organisation, such as the
job types of “doctor,” “nurse,” and their scopes
of practice, or what degree of standardisation is
realistic in healthcare.
BMJ | 22 JANUARY 2011 | VOLUME 342 Safety culture
What would transfer well to medicine? Firstly,
the established Confidential Human Factors
Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP), for
self reporting near misses and human errors—
for example, being distracted and not following
an important air traffic clearance. The National
Patient Safety Agency operates a similar scheme
but, unlike CHIRP, does not publish the origi‑
nal firsthand accounts of incidents. Secondly,
a recommended procedure in an emergency
situation is given by the mnemonic “DODAR”—
diagnosis, options, decision, assign tasks, and
review. This offers a structured framework for
decision making and using resources to best
effect. In particular, “review” encourages situ‑
ational awareness—do my original assessment
and actions still fit the overall picture?
Doctors need to understand why certain prac‑
tices work well in aviation but not necessarily
in medicine. We should not be seduced by the
polished image of flying or introduce unsuitable
systems into a different environment. After all,
pilots enjoy their job without feeling the need to
mimic doctors.
I thank Tim Tuckey, an Airbus A320 captain.
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally
peer reviewed.
Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:c7309
Yes, for every programme there are costs
and benefits as well as unintended conse‑
quences to consider. These should be analysed
for any intervention whether it is translated
from another industry or comes directly from a
healthcare source. Healthcare will never be the
same as aviation. It can’t be. Patients are indeed
not aeroplanes. But our pendulum of safety
management is so far from that of aviation that
we surely don’t need to make healthcare exactly
like aviation, and no credible source has ever
suggested that we should. Instead, those of
us who have advocated learning lessons from
aviation have sought a middle ground, recog‑
nising and adapting appropriate concepts and
practices and implementing them sensibly into
healthcare. The process of finding those con‑
cepts and practices has not finished, and the
implementation of those practices that seem
most likely to be beneficial has barely scratched
the surface.
Competing interests: The author has completed the unified
competing interest form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.
pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and
declares no support from any organisation for the submitted
work; DMG is editor in chief of Simulation in Healthcare
and receives an annual stipend for this from the Society for
Simulation in Healthcare; he is an unpaid member of the
board of directors and executive committee of the Anesthesia
Patient Safety Foundation.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally
peer reviewed.
Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:c7310